The case started with an email from India.
The writer was relaying information about his mother, halfway across the world near Schenectady, saying she needed to be rescued from what is described in court paperwork as “overly arduous working conditions.”
The information from that email and a subsequent phone call, both made in March 2011, was turned over to the Department of Homeland Security; the ensuing investigation led to the ongoing criminal case against the woman’s longtime employer, Rexford resident Annie George.
If George is convicted of the federal charge against her, it could lead to the federal government seizing one of the most recognizable mansions in the region, Llenroc. Trial in the case had been set for this week, but has now been put off until November.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the case at Llenroc is far from unique.
In 2011 alone, Homeland Security started a total of 722 human trafficking investigations, saw 938 arrests and 444 total indictments nationwide. They also saw 271 convictions on the year for human trafficking related cases.
The agency defines human trafficking as “the use of force, coercion or fraud to compel victims into servitude or commercial sexual exploitation.”
The department hears about its cases through several organizations, among them The Polaris Project.
The decade-old Washington-based Polaris Project runs education programs on the issue, works to pass laws against trafficking at the state level and, most important to those with the group, operates a hotline that people can call to alert authorities about possible trafficking situations and victims being held.
It was actually through the Polaris Project that authorities were alerted about the Llenroc case, that the servant was being held against her will and not being paid properly for her services. The project is also known as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
George, of Rexford, is accused of forcing her employee, who is from India and identified only as “V.M.” in court documents, to typically work more than 17 hours per day, caring for the family’s children, including cooking for them and cleaning up after them. She would then sleep on the floor of a walk-in closet in the mansion, which the family moved into in 2008.
The Polaris Project highlights the problem of human trafficking, both in the labor force and sex trade. And it’s a problem that runs nationwide and around the world, according to the program’s deputy director Sarah Jakiel.
“Trafficking is happening all over the U.S.,” Jakiel said. “It’s not relegated to big cities. It certainly happens in New York City and all over New York state.”
Cases of human trafficking often start through fraud, Jakiel said. Individuals can be deceived into taking a job. In the case of sex slavery, women might initially be told they are being hired as a waitress or model, then forced into prostitution and held against their wills.
In agricultural cases, workers might be promised certain wages and living conditions that never materialize, and find themselves in a situation where they are unable to leave.
“It’s important for people to understand that human trafficking isn’t exclusive to physical force,” Jakiel said. Psychological coercion and deception can occur on a number of levels. “They don’t have to be locked up, they don’t have to be caged or behind bars. There’s a lot of ways to threaten individuals to keep them in servitude.”
Individuals in the country illegally can be particularly vulnerable, with their employers controlling the aspects of their employment and the threat of being sent home hanging over their heads. Language can also be a barrier to seeking help.
With the servant in the Llenroc case, she had no means to leave the home on her own, worked seven days a week, 365 days a year without a day off, prosecutors contend. She also was never taken to see a doctor.
Investigators later learned that the servant was supposed to make about $1,000 per month. She alleged that she had been paid only $29,000 during her six-year tenure and prosecutors allege that she was entitled to more than $200,000.
V.M. was employed by the family from 2005 until May 2011, when Homeland Security investigators removed her from the home. Before coming to Llenroc, she was with the family at homes in Menands and Greene County. Prosecutors are seeking to seize the mansion at 708 Riverview Road.
George, who is represented by attorney Mark Sacco, denies the charges, with Sacco calling the prosecution excessive and the servant’s motives suspect.
After a hearing in federal court last month, Sacco that his client was not aware of what money V.M. was owed and did not know the servant’s immigration status. George’s late husband, Mathai Kolath George, handled the finances, Sacco argued. Mathai Kolath George and the couple’s son, George M. Kolath, were both killed in a plane crash in 2009.
The Department of Homeland Security takes a victim-centered approach to the issue, working with multiple agencies, receiving tips and then rescuing those in need, spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs said.
Depending on the tip and information available, Fobbs said the agency can act quickly to pull someone out of a situation.
“If we feel that a victim is in harm’s way at that very moment, we will go rescue that victim immediately,” Fobbs said.
In the Llenroc case, the initial complaint from the servant’s son came in March 2011. By May 3, Homeland Security agents were there to pull the woman out. After allegedly being told the servant wasn’t there, agents indicated they knew she was there, saying they wouldn’t leave without her. The servant was finally sent out a side door. George was charged in February 2012.
The servant came to the U.S. on a visa allowing her to work as a domestic servant for a family associated with the United Nations. Her visa was tied to her employment. She left there in 2005 and eventually arrived with the Georges, allegedly offered three times what she made with the U.N. family.
Jakiel said servants in such situations can be at risk because they often don’t know their rights and language barriers can be high.
The Polaris Project has developed a brochure that is supposed to be given to all incoming servants on the visa similar to those the Llenroc servant originally came over on, outlining their rights and providing the Polaris hotline number.
The brochure, though, is only in English and Spanish, Jakiel said. There are plans in place to expand the brochure to many more languages. The hotline currently handles many languages.
To help combat the problem as a whole, Homeland Security started what it calls the “Blue Campaign” in 2010, the aim being to coordinate and unite the department’s different programs to combat human trafficking.
The agency also points people to outside programs, including the Polaris Project and their hotline 888-373-7888.
The Polaris Project began in 2002, aiming to protect any individual from human trafficking, whether they be immigrants or citizens.
One of the co-founders of the Polaris Project was in Troy in 2008, speaking to students and parents at the Emma Willard School. Katherine Chon called trafficking a widespread problem among both those born here and those who came here. Chon also sits on Emma Willard’s Head of School’s Advisory Council.
The project’s hotline generates between 1,500 and 1,800 calls each month. Since it began, it’s received just over 58,000 calls.
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Categories: Schenectady County